Nick Bollinger acknowledges the meeting of a bluegrass veteran and a great American folk poet.
Nearly 50 years after his death, Woody Guthrie remains America’s greatest folk poet and it’s hard to imagine a time when songs like ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh' didn’t exist. Still, it was surprising when, back in the late 90s, Wilco and Billy Bragg turned up a whole lot of Guthrie songs no one had ever heard. And it seems that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now Del McCoury and his band have brought to life another dozen Guthrie compositions, that have until now remained unsung.
77 years old, yet still singing with a young man’s verve and vocal range, McCoury is a living link to the beginnings of the music known as bluegrass. In the early 60s he played banjo and sang with Bill Monroe, bluegrass’s founding father - inventor, in fact. Yet right through that decade, and most of the 70s and 80s as well, McCoury held down day jobs in construction and logging, only turning pro in the 90s, by which time his sons, and a couple of others, had joined him as The Del McCoury Band. And there’s something about having spent all those years making music outside the demands of commerce that has preserved the purity of his approach. This might be as close to Monroe’s original model as you’ll hear anywhere today. This isn’t newgrass, progressive hillbilly, or anything else.
That said, McCoury isn’t averse to a musical adventure. He’s jammed with the String Cheese incident, and few years ago made an album and toured with Steve Earle .It was at a festival in the late 2000s that McCoury made the acquaintance of Norah Guthrie, daughter of Woody and custodian of the Guthrie archives, which in addition to paintings, drawings, photos and prose holds that extraordinary collection of unrecorded songs. To Guthrie, writing verse was not that different to breathing. He wrote on a daily, if not hourly basis, and his subjects ranged from the profound to the plebeian.
Though Woody (born in 1912) was a generation older than McCoury, Norah heard in McCoury’s vintage country style the sort of music she could picture Woody playing, if he’d had a band. Yet for all their musical commonalities, McCoury, as it turned out, had little idea who Woody Guthrie was. The southern bluegrass world he came from was culturally a long way from the folk, art and protest movements in which Guthrie had been engaged. Yet he quickly realised that he actually knew many of Guthrie’s songs; he just hadn’t associated them with their author. And presented with a sheaf of unsung lyrics, McCoury proved Norah Guthrie’s instincts were right; he found himself singing the words as though they had just come tumbling out of his own head – whether in bewilderment at the New York City trains, poignant reflection on the loss of family members, or contemplating women’s fashions in hat-wear.
Apparently Norah Guthrie gave McCoury her blessing to change a word here and there if he had to; he didn’t. It’s as though Guthrie’s verses were written for his voice; the way he accentuates particular words – ‘buffalo trail’ or ‘government’ – has got to be exactly as Guthrie intended.
Mermaid Avenue – the two discs of Guthrie songs set by Wilco and Bragg – invited a reassessment of Guthrie’s talents. He had long been typecast as the dust bowl balladeer or writer of activist anthems. But songs like ‘My Flying Saucer’, ‘Airline To Heaven’, ‘Hoodoo Voodoo’ or ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’ showed he could equally be a surrealist, a modernist or eroticist. Del and Woody, on the other hand, sets him in a tradition of country songwriters. If Mermaid Avenue made the case for Guthrie as a rock’n’roller, Del and Woody asserts him as a peer of Hank Williams. The two approaches are equal in their breadth of imagination, and their depth of humanity. And each, in its own way, rocks just as hard.
Songs featured: The New York Trains, Cheap Mike, Family Reunion, Wimmin’s Hats, The Government Road, Ain’t A Gonna Do.
Del and Woody is available on McCoury Music.